John Lewis Was an American Founder

Without activists like Lewis and C. T. Vivian, America would remain a white republic, not a nation for all its citizens.

Getty / The Atlantic

The Alabama that John Lewis was born into in 1940 was a one-party authoritarian state. Forty years before Lewis was born, the white elite of Alabama, panicked by a populist revolt of white and Black workers, shut Black men out of politics in a campaign of terror, fraud, murder, and, finally, disenfranchisement.

“We had to do it. Unfortunately, I say it was a necessity. We could not help ourselves,” Alabama Governor William C. Oates confessed. In 1901, the Montgomery Advertiser announced that with the new state constitution, “the putrid sore of negro suffrage is severed from the body of the commonwealth.” Such wholesale purges of Black Americans from the polity unfolded throughout the South, where the Democratic Party established a system of implacable white supremacy.

Most of America’s Black population, when Lewis was born, lived in a white republic, where they were driven into poverty, disenfranchised, and denied basic civil and political rights through violence, custom, and law. More than one-third of Alabama’s population when Lewis was born was denied the right to vote.

“As a child, I was restless to escape the boundaries that had been set for me,” Lewis wrote in his 2012 memoir, Across That Bridge. “As a disenfranchised citizen who yearned for change, as a child born on the dark side of the American dream, I heard the whispers of the spirit calling me to wrestle with the soul of a nation.” Lewis wanted to be a preacher; as the historian David Halberstam wrote in his book The Children, as a kid Lewis would practice by preaching to chickens. “Lewis did chicken births, chicken weddings, chicken baptisms, and chicken funerals; they were in the truest sense his flock.”

In pursuit of that ambition, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1957, where he met C. T. Vivian, James Lawson, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and Marion Barry. Together, they pioneered the nonviolent tactics of a movement that would change the country, and the world. Vivian, Halbertsam wrote, “said that it was as if God had a master plan, bringing so many uncommon people of such rare strength and vision together in one place at one time.” Yesterday, Vivian and Lewis passed into eternity, and with them, the priceless memories and earned wisdom of a lifetime of struggles for justice.

Vivian, a reverend, journalist, and agitator, was a northerner. Raised in Illinois, he chafed at the southern mores that Lewis had grown up with—once, in 1956, shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott, Halbertsam recounts, Vivian refused to sit in the segregated section of a Nashville bus. The driver emptied the bus and drove Vivian to the police station, where the cops acknowledged that sitting in the white section of the bus was no longer an arrestable offense. He was also already an old hand at sit-ins by the time he met Lewis in Nashville, having participated in one at a segregated lunch counter in Illinois in 1947.

In 1959, Lewis, Vivian, and the others began quietly testing sit-in tactics, entering segregated facilities and asking why they were being denied service, but stopping short of refusing to leave. In 1960, days after a group of black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged their famed protest at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, the Nashville movement began in earnest, with demonstrations at downtown restaurants and department stores. Violence, mass arrests, and a bombing failed to halt the movement—the more repressive the response, the more people joined the cause. Two months later, Nashville began desegregating its public facilities, the first major city in the South to do so.

Vivian would later explain why they chose such targets. “There is no greater indignity beyond the buses themselves, you see, where you had to go to the back and people would drive away without you, take your money, or you could be arrested … But the next thing was the matter of the lunch counters, because you couldn’t eat downtown. Your wife, your children, you … You were always watching other people be able to appreciate the natural consequences of a democratic society and you were not able to participate.”

These efforts to desegregate facilities and businesses were rarely popular. Many white Americans resented the disruption to the status quo, even if on some level, they told themselves, they sympathized with the protesters. Activists such as Lewis and Vivian were a constant exasperation to American political leadership, who wished to placate them without radically altering the structure of American society. But for the leaders of the movement, that would not do.

“As we participated in protest after protest, sit-in after sit-in, where crowds of uncontrollable angry people swarmed around us yelling and jeering, where we were beaten with billy clubs, lead pipes, trampled by horses, and attacked by dogs, our faith was not dampened, as many people today, looking back on the history, often wonder. It actually grew in power and strength,” Lewis wrote in 2012. “Public support for our work did not decrease because of mob violence and police brutality, it increased. It almost seemed the more the unjust resisted, the more impassioned the call for change.”

This was only the beginning. Vivian and Lewis fought and bled for the cause at sit-ins, in the Freedom Rides of 1961, when police and the Ku Klux Klan worked hand in hand to brutalize protesters trying to desegregate public buses, through the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965, where Lewis had his skull cracked open by Alabama state troopers. Without these men and their allies in the civil-rights movement, the maxim in the Declaration of Independence that all are created equal would be but words on paper written by slave masters. Absent their sacrifice, their bravery, and their brilliance, America would remain a herrenvolk republic, not a nation for all its citizens.

By custom, headline writers refer to men such as Vivian and Lewis as “civil-rights icons.” This understates who they were. They were the leaders of an incomplete revolution that remade American society. If Americans loosely followed the example of the French, one could argue that the First American Republic, founded by men including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, would have lasted from 1776 to 1861, when the Confederacy turned its guns on Fort Sumter. The Second American Republic, which abolished slavery and wrote the equality of man into the Constitution, was founded by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. The Third American Republic, the only one to sincerely pursue the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the first true attempt at interracial democracy in American history, was founded by people including Vivian, Lewis, Diane Nash, and Coretta Scott King. They are part of a third generation of American leaders who elevated the universal truths in Christian doctrine and the words of the 1776 Founders, and shamed the nation into deciding that these ideals meant something. The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act remade America into something it had never been, bringing the nation closer to what it fancied itself to be.

Lewis, Vivian, and their allies would not have seen themselves this way, but in their imagination and compassion, in their sincere belief in the ideals of the declaration, they surpassed their predecessors. Jefferson said the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants; he did not foresee a rebellion in which the patriots need not have bloodied their own hands, or spilled the blood of the tyrants.

Nevertheless, Lewis, as a young radical, very much saw his movement as an effort to complete the first American Revolution. In his speech at the March on Washington, Lewis exhorted the crowd:

I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.

Lewis and Vivian lived long enough to see their revolution begin to unravel. A disciplined legal counterrevolution, a rising white nationalism, and a bipartisan expansion of mass incarceration led by some of those who eulogize the men today reversed or hindered the progress they sacrificed to achieve. Their loss ushers in a compounding tragedy: the passing of their lives into public memory as America’s living memory of Jim Crow apartheid fades into time. Just as the proponents of chattel slavery and the partisans of the Confederacy made propaganda of history to serve the doctrine of white supremacy, there will be those who seek to invert the meaning of the civil-rights struggle, what it battled, and what it achieved.

But Lewis never thought of his struggle as one that would end. “We must accept one central truth as participants in a democracy: Freedom is not a state; it is an act,” Lewis wrote. “It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest.” Lewis and Vivian can now rest. It is up to us to honor them, by continuing what they started, by sustaining the work of democracy as best we can.